Cognitive Distortions

Is your child making a mountain out of a mole hill?

Is your child:

  • Thinking in “black and white?”
  • Saying, “Math is evil,” “Everyone hates me” or “This is the worst day of my life?”
  • Jumping from one extreme to the other? If the store is out of the bubblegum ice cream, does he say, “Well, then I don’t want any! This place is stupid!”
  • Refusing to look on the bright side?
  • Always seeing the glass as half empty?
  • Severely exaggerating problems? In other words, making a mountain out of a mole hill.’



Some children tend to use what psychologists call ‘maladaptive’ thinking patterns. That is, they tend to exaggerate the negative elements of situations, to jump to erroneous conclusions, and to fail to change their negative perspectives when there is clear evidence to the contrary. For example, your child may say, “I am not going to social studies today. I know I will fail that test!” Then, when your child actually does well on the test, he will not correct his thinking, claiming instead, “Well, I’m still failing the class.” Another word for these maladaptive thinking patterns is ‘cognitive distortions.’

Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking about things in an inaccurate way that makes the person feel depressed, anxious, or have a lowered self-esteem. This kind of thinking involves rigidity. It means that the child cannot see how situations may have some good and some bad aspects. He may have a ‘glass is always half empty’ state of mind.

Your child may seem stubborn. When a peer makes one mistake, she may say, “Well, she is not my friend anymore.” There is no wiggle room. Friends and family may feel like they are walking on eggshells.

He may feel like nothing works out right or goes his way. When things are good, caregivers may feel that they are always waiting for the other shoe to drop.


These patterns of thoughts are examples of Cognitive Distortions. Cognitive Distortions were introduced by psychologist [1, 2] Aaron Beck years ago to explain patterns of thinking that contribute to anxiety and depression.

Understanding these distortions and thought patterns is essential in treating anxiety and depression.

Black and white thinking is the inability to see shades of gray in other people and situations. It’s “all or nothing.” Examples include “I am a terrible person.” Or “I like to do everything perfectly.” Black and White thinking is neither realistic nor helpful for your child.

It is important to be able to consider different possibilities and to have the confidence and energy to try. By taking an all or nothing stance like “I am a bad person,” little room is left for change, while “I had a bad day” implies that tomorrow can be better.

As children learn to look at negative occurrences as singular and specific instead of global and general, their outlook can be more positive because they have the confidence to try again or to do things differently [1, 2, 3, 4]. Recognizing negative thought patterns is the first step to making change. If a child can see this negative thinking, he or she may be able to reframe for him or herself. Below are some more examples of cognitive distortions.

  • Catastrophizing – Seeing small problems as big problems. Jumping to the conclusion that the worst possible thing will always happen, without facts and evidence. Making a mountain out of a mole hill. In the delightful children’s story, Big Dog, Little Dog [5] the bird tells the dogs at the end, ‘Why make big problems out of little problems.’ This sentiment helps kids fight against the urge to catastrophize.
  • Overgeneralizing – One small situation is generalized to all situations. Use words like ‘never’ and ‘always.’ “I made one mistake. I’m an idiot who always makes mistakes.”
  • Blaming – Focused on blaming others. Refusing to take ownership for mistakes.
  • Personalization – The tendency to see everything as somehow related to the self. If someone is quiet and sad one day, they assume, “I must have done something.”


Listen to your child, and hear what he or she says. Echo or reframe what was said. “I will never win student council president” can be reframed as “It feels like things just never go your way.”

Offer understanding that the particular issue shared is a bummer. Then say, “I wonder if there are a few things you could try?”

Take the belief, and introduce hope or introduce an alternative. Try not to say something completely contrary like “Yes you will; you are brilliant.” Try to get at your child’s emotion, and to gently guide him or her to see other sides. For example, “I understand that you are nervous about how you will do on the test. What can we do to help you feel better?

Remember to hear your child; if you quickly discount a statement or feeling, then you will get resistance back.

Meet your child where he or she is at that moment, and help to gently move them to a less extreme position. You want your child to get there on his or her own and to shift the thought to a more optimistic position of “Maybe I’ll win if I share my ideas.”

In the inspirational children’s book, What Do You Do With A Problem [6], the author (Mae Besom) provides a brilliant example of how children can turn little issues into large ones. She writes, “And the more I avoided my problem, the more I saw it everywhere. I thought about it all the time. I didn’t feel good at all. I couldn’t take it anymore. ‘This has to stop!’ I declared. Maybe I was making my problem bigger and scarier than it actually was. After all, my problem hadn’t really swallowed me up or attacked me” [6].

The idea illustrated here is that when worries and the tendency to catastrophize take hold, the child feels miserable and trapped. He or she does not realize that a potential solution to the problem could be just around the corner or that maybe the problem isn’t so big after all.

Read books on the issue with your child. At home, reading books like this one, and What to do if you worry too much [7], From Worrier to Warrior [8], 12 Annoying Monsters [9] are all helpful ways to engage your child in a dialogue about his or her thinking patterns. These thoughts are maladaptive, which means they are ‘getting in the way’ of happiness and well-being. Tell your child, “Whether you are right or wrong, all of this negative thinking is not helping you. It’s getting in your way. Let’s see how we can ‘re-think’ it together.”

If, even with these supports in place at home, your child is still struggling with extreme emotions, excessive worries, or depression, it is time to get help. First, reach out to the school counselor.

Let the counselor know that your child is struggling and could use some help at school. Then, it may be helpful to get a therapist involved. Black and White thinking is often treated with cognitive therapy that includes examining thoughts and challenging beliefs that are negative or not grounded in evidence.

CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy [2, 3, 4, 5] includes challenging thinking and changing behaviors to move in the direction you want to go. If your child has very entrenched black and white thinking, consider CBT, which has research and evidence to support its effectiveness in combating this thinking style. Many individuals find a great deal of relief from this type of therapy and often are able to overcome depression and anxiety through this approach.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Depression: generally depressed individuals have a variety of cognitive distortions
  • Perseverating: people who ‘obsess’ over certain things, especially over worries and fears, may have cognitive distortions
  • Rigid behavior: people who are very firm in their beliefs and unwilling to shift their thinking ten to have cognitive distortions
  • General anxiety: people who are very nervous or worry a lot tend to have a variety of cognitive distortions
  • Social anxiety: people who are socially anxious tend to have cognitive distortions
  • Somatization: physical symptoms of emotional distress can indicate the presence of cognitive distortions leading to anxiety or depression


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this information does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See the ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Anxiety: excessive worry that has an impact on day-to-day functioning. Cognitive distortions may be related to generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, and/or social anxiety
  • Depression: depressed mood, or, in children, irritability that is pervasive; decreased interest in activities that used to be enjoyable may stem from cognitive distortions
  • Bipolar Disorder: depressed mood, or, in children, irritability that is pervasive; alternating with periods of elevated mood, pressured speech and goal-directed activity; in children, cycles tends to be less differentiated; may stem from cognitive distortions
  • Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD): depressed mood, or, in children, irritability that is pervasive; this leads to behavioral outbursts or behavior challenges that are rooted in depression; may also show a cognitive distortions style thinking pattern
  • Adjustment Reaction (Trauma and Attachment Disorders): emotional symptoms stemming from adjustment to an event or situation; could be divorce, a change of schools, or death of a loved one; these hurting children may also have a maladaptive thinking pattern that includes cognitive distortions
  • Personality Symptoms: low distress tolerance and excessive emotionality
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors; children with ASD often have cognitive distortions
  • Learning Disabilities (Educationally Identified Disabilities): challenges with reading, mathematics and writing may cause low self-esteem and may be associated with cognitive distortions that lead to increased anxiety and depression


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child or to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • Psychotherapist or Play Therapist: to treat emotional symptoms and anxiety
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:


[1] Beck, Aaron T. (1972, 2009). Depression; Causes and Treatment.: Second Edition.


[2] Beck, Judith S. & Beck, Aaron T (2011). Cognitive Distortions Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Second Edition, Basics and Beyond Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Second Edition, Basics and Beyond


[3] Knaus, William J. & Albert Ellis, Albert (2012). The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression.


[4] Guest, Jennifer (2016). The CBT art activity book: 100 illustrated handouts for creative therapeutic work.


[5] Eastman, P.D. (2003) Big Dog…Little Dog. Random House Children’s Books. [6]

[6] Yamada, Kobi & Besom, Mae (2016). What Do You Do With A Problem?


[7] Huebner, D. (2005). What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety.


[8] Peters, D.B. (2013). From worrier to warrior: A guide to conquering your fears. Great Potential Press: Tucson, AZ


[9] Meredith, Dawn (2014). 12 Annoying Monsters: Self-talk for kids with anxiety.


[10] Seligman, Ph.D., Martin E.P. (1995, 2007). The Optimistic Child: A revolutionary program that safeguards children against depression and builds lifelong resilience.


Image Credit:
Description: Portrait of sad blond little girl sitting on the bridge at the day time
Stock Photo ID: #106733528
By: altanaka
Previously Licensed on: May 14, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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